Bill Bennett's Lessons On How to Be Good - One Story at a Time

The Moral Compass

By William Bennett

Simon & Schuster

824 pp., $30

William Bennett seems to know that many people take their morals in small doses. Here a little, there a little. So he's given us another book full of short tales about being good, a companion to his bestseller "The Book of Virtues."

The latter is organized around 10 good traits of character.

"The Moral Compass" illustrates how these traits and others advance our passages of life, first at home, then on into the world; our learning to stand for our convictions, be humanitarian, be good mothers, fathers, citizens, leaders, and people of faith.

Let's say you are a man who works hard each day and sometimes comes home tired and a little on edge, reminded again that you are not quite a Greek god. But your dear wife has given you "The Moral Compass" for Christmas, 800 pages of self-help she hopes you will use.

So you open to the middle and read how Prometheus, against Zeus's will, gave fire to earthlings so they could keep the kids warm and cook their food. And then poor Prometheus got in trouble for being generous and easing the path of others.

Well, maybe things are not so bad in the office after all. We live a lot off the good of others, you reason, so why not pitch in and be cheerful.

Then you flip to Page 89, shift the heavy book on your lap, and read a Guy de Maupassant story about a boy without a father. The language drips a little, but the point drives home. That week you carry through on a promise to enroll your son in Boy Scouts, and you even decide to help out the troop a little, partly so you can be with your son a bit more.

Professional intellectuals, if they are the kind who make their living largely by toying around with the work of others, will no doubt find lots to fault in this book. It will be too original for them, in the sense that it flies in the face of the worst of modernism without even bothering to apologize or justify.

It's a book for parents and teachers who know that children need to be taught morals, but who also know that children learn mostly by imitating the adult lives they see. These hundreds of stories and poems will work if they first awaken the moral sensibilities of parents and teachers, who can then effectively tell them to children or read them aloud.

Our lives can be understood, in part anyway, by stories about us. This is not a superficial way to look at life. One of the many books of the humanitarian and moralist Robert Coles is titled "The Call of Stories." Children who learn to love stories about goodness will rise above the shallowness and meanness of most TV and film fare and have the chance to cultivate systematic and penetrating powers of moral thought.

This book's eclectic sources remind me of the early training of Paul, whose intellectual powers were fed with the moral discipline of Judaism and enough knowledge of Greek and Roman culture to enable him to carve out ideas that became some of the most thoughtful origins of a more universal and caring culture.

Bennett draws here from all cultures and times, culling vivid literature centered on virtue. And he gives the stories of a number of major humanitarians, both men and women.

Being a blending of peoples, the United States badly needs this multicultural book, as do other nations. It will help families find virtue at home so that our children can repair a torn society.

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